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Lessons for the US

There were significant moments in the 20th century when heightened awareness of major human values – freedom, justice, order, security etc – forced American, and other western thinkers and academics to review the human condition and the ways to ameliorate it. For instance, the first and second world wars made it painfully clear how devastating the effect of great power rivalry against the backdrop of modern mechanised warfare was. How important it was to prevent a political situation from spiralling out of control through short-term strategic interests or appeasement. The idea of the League of Nations and later the United Nations emerged partly from such realisations.

Although US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not emerge too frequently in the American analytical discourse, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was too close for comfort and brought home to many in the US the horrific dangers of nuclear weapons. The Vietnam experience demonstrated the limits of military power to the point that the US military and political thinking continues to be effected by the so-called ‘Vietnam-Syndrome’.

The anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, the secessionist movements after the end of the Cold War in the former USSR, highlighted the inevitability of the human quest for self-determination, self-preservation and freedom from oppression. Again, the Balkans crises throughout the 1990s and the Rwandan genocide were persistent reminders of the human capacity to annihilate the “other”, the desire for identity and the importance of international order and respect for human rights.

It is argued by American academics that the World Wars and the Cold War and the aftermath taught some invaluable lessons to the US policy-makers. In which case it is logical to wonder what the lessons of the American war on terror are. The blood-shed in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s emerges less prominently in the American academic literature of the period – a reminder that the US foreign policy lacked strategic vision and in-depth threat assessment despite terrorist attacks on American assets within and outside the US during the 1990s.

The scale and audacity of 9/11 rekindled American strategic interest in Afghanistan with a vengeance. While there will undoubtedly be many lessons in military/counter-insurgency operational strategy, it is to the human aspects of the story that the Americans need to pay equal, if not more, attention. One, military power, including nuclear power, alone does not guarantee success especially when the objective is not territorial but ideological. Two, there is such a thing as reverse-influence in the conduct of foreign relations between unequal entities such as the US and Pakistan. There is a limit to how far America, with all its resources, can leverage smaller nations into doing its bidding.

Three, as long as great powers will tweak and influence international institutions and norms for their own benefit, justice will remain unequal. When justice is not equal in the international arena then individuals will take the law into their own hands and mete out justice in the form of revenge and reprisal. Four, North Korean, Pakistani and Iranian nuclear programmes demonstrate that despite huge economic and resource disparities, technological advancement is not the exclusive property of the great powers. Technological replication and reverse-engineering cannot be eternally contained by any great power and perhaps it will not be long before Obama can kiss the exclusivity of his drone and cyber-warfare goodbye.

More importantly, asymmetrical warfare will remain the preference of the less powerful in an unequal conflict. When it comes to protecting one’s life and limb all humans are endowed with the natural instinct for self-preservation; states are made up of human beings and therefore they will invent ways and means of diversification to overcome military disparities by other means. War against terrorism demonstrates that humans can and will take on a powerful enemy in every which way possible in order to ensure the survival of their relative power, identity and their inalienable right to make choices. The use of ‘human bombs’ is an extreme but apt example in this regard.

Five, the process of modern globalisation spawns not only economic interdependence but also interlinks security paradigms. And last but not least, military action is the worst possible substitute for public diplomacy especially when dealing with people of an area who consider their way of life to be just as culturally and ideologically ‘exceptional’ as the United States.

US foreign policy elite often fail to view international relations as part of interconnected historical processes with outcomes that do not stop at the water’s edge. They tend to treat events as happenings in isolation which can be fixed through the use of military and technological prowess in an ad-hoc manner. When in 1991 George H W Bush was asked to comment on the continuing power struggle in Afghanistan he reportedly asked, “Is that thing still going on?”- such was the level of the US strategic interest in the region from where a massive security threat to the US was due to emerge only ten years down the line.

This blinkered view obviates a wholesome appraisal of the problem at hand, including the social and cultural dimensions. The failed Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s recalled the historic futility of invading Afghanistan; yet the US plunged into the Afghan imbroglio with the same abandonment in 2001.

Back in the 1980s, it was Reagan’s foreign policy that encouraged the use of religious ideology as a tool to further American strategic goals in the Cold War. As the Soviet Union withdrew and later disintegrated, the US lost strategic interest in the region instead of evaluating its long-term consequences, not only for the strategically located Pakistan and Afghanistan but also for the United States.

The Americans upped and left without rehabilitating the hardened fighters and dismantling weapon dumps. Nor did they adequately assist in the repatriation of more than three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan or maintain leverage over the Afghan and Pakistani actors to help install a broad-based interim government after the Soviet withdrawal. In keeping with their history, fighting the Soviets would have most likely remained a nationalist aspiration for the Afghan freedom fighters. By introducing Muslim fighters from other parts of the world, training them in asymmetrical warfare and arming them to the teeth, the Americans managed to internationalise the issue. By leaving without resolving the post-conflict issues, the US created space for the rise of Al-Qaeda.

Against such a record it is difficult to imagine that the US has learnt any lessons in humility or that its foreign policy-making has undergone any fundamental change since 2001. Obama and Romney’s views on tackling of international issues during the 2012 presidential campaign are a testimony to continued bipartisan short-sightedness in this regard. However if better sense prevails then the US policy-makers, think tanks and the American public would do well to focus on the above as some of the worthwhile lessons of their post 9/11 experience.

The writer is a PhD student at Leicester, UK. Email: talatfarooq11@gmail.com

Talat Farooq, "Lessons for the US," The News. 2012-12-14.